Hitting Rock Bottom
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Hitting Rock Bottom

Good advertising is meant to stop you in your tracks, but a new ad campaign for local radio station CFRB might leave you frozen in disbelief.
This month, CFRB contracted ad agency zig to create a witty series of guerilla-style street ads (read: illegal) meant to highlight polarizing issues of urban life. “Is advertising out of control?” reads a CFRB flyer wheatpasted on a Queen West utility pole. A sign asking “Should cyclists have to obey traffic laws?” is tied to a bicycle. A homeless man begs for change while holding a placard which says, “Should panhandling be illegal?”
Wait, what? Isn’t hiring actors to portray homeless people in live advertising tableaux just a little insensitive? Surely CFRB wouldn’t be taking advantage of real homeless people, would they?

It turns out that, yes, the people holding the signs are bona fide down on their luck, and are being paid by zig to highlight their indignity for the sake of a corporation’s ad campaign. Torontoist asked zig’s Executive Creative Director, Martin Beauvais, if this wasn’t at least the teensiest bit exploitive.
“Panhandling exists regardless of advertising and is a daily fact of life in any major city,” says Beauvais, who worked on the campaign. “This puts a face on the question, making it more poignant and harder to brush off. We are raising the question to spark debate beyond the surface issue and, ultimately, discuss possible solutions.”
Possible faux sincerity aside, the truth remains that the people paid (an undisclosed sum) to flaunt the placards are likely making much less than an actor would for the same day’s work and use of the actor’s image. And surely, the fees paid are a barely significant budget item within the overall cost of the campaign.
More disturbingly, since many of Toronto’s homeless suffer from mental illness and addiction, there is the question whether or not zig and CFRB are taking advantage of those who are desperate and destitute. At discount prices!
The practice of displaying ads on homeless people developed around 2005 in Seattle, when privileged 22-year-old entrepreneur Benjamin Rogovy trademarked the offensive term “bumvertising” and began offering the humiliating concept as a promotional service. Rogovy advises “derelicts” with a list of tips—staying “relatively sober,” for example, is important to encourage repeat donations, since “the customer is always right.” A sign-holder should also obey “all regional laws and bum codes” and present an unsoiled sign so as not to “significantly affect his revenue stream.”
Technically illegal street advertising is questionable under the best of circumstances, but the addition of the human element taints what would otherwise be a smart campaign. CFRB and zig see it as giving a job to people who may not otherwise be employed, rather than as a wealthy corporation exploiting destitute and disadvantaged human beings to sell a product.
“We made sure our treatment and the content of the campaign approached this tactic in a fair and non-exploitive way,” claims Beauvais. “The signs are not supporting any point of view; they are raising a question that, in this context, becomes much more powerful and thought-provoking.”
We wonder if one of the ideas aborted in the boardroom was to dress the homeless up like monkeys in little caps and chain them to organs. Or would that be too crass?
Images courtesy of zig.